When someone asks me to critique for them, my brain flips a switch and goes into this weird android mode; I pick the story apart piece by tiny piece with ruthless machine efficiency, right down to the word level, figuring out incredibly small nuances that don’t work, word choices that need to change, sentences that take an emotional outburst one beat too long, etc. Then I step back to look at the whole picture and how it all fits together, or doesn’t, and look at overarching story elements.
But while I’m marking all the tiny things at the micro level that went wrong, I also notice things that go very right—the jokes that make me laugh, the descriptions that take me right inside of a setting, the emotional punches that land. And so for every “Fix this” comment, I’m making nearly as many smiley faces (or comments like, “Love!” “Nice!” “So great!”).
If you take a class on how to critique, you will often hear that you should use the sandwich method: suggestion, compliment, suggestion. This is to help cushion the criticism for the writer.
But that’s not why I do it, either.
It’s still my android brain at work: I do it because the smiley faces are just as effective in helping writers grow as criticisms do. Pointing out what works confirms their instincts, and that is essential to a writer’s development. I’m not talking about searching for nice things to say, or things that didn’t suck; I mean pointing out the things that truly worked—perfect beats, brilliant images, funny jokes.
I realized this when I received those smiley faces on my own work. There’s the immediate bonus of that warm feeling I get when someone likes my writing, from a word choice to a sentence that shone for them. But it also lets me know that a line or image I felt was right, in fact, was right. And every time that happens it allows me to trust my writer instinct that much more in the next manuscript. And all of that helps me develop my voice—any writer’s most valuable asset.
I’ve heard of critiquers who feel like they’re most helpful by pointing out what’s wrong with a manuscript and who don’t point out what worked really well. But confining yourself to only that feedback severely limits the way in which you can help a writer develop to her full potential.
So give them a gold star. Or a dozen. Or twice that, as long as they’re truly earned. You’re just making them that much better. ☺ ☺ ☺
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.